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Affidavits Reveal More Details in Austin Colson Investigation

  • Austin Colson and his girlfriend Katie Grizzaffi in an undated photograph. Colson was last seen Jan. 11, 2018. (Courtesy Katie Grizzaffi)



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

White River Junction — Data retrieved from cellphones and at least one witness contradict the version of events provided to police by a suspect in the disappearance of 19-year-old Austin Colson, according to search warrant affidavits filed in connection with the investigation.

What had been a missing persons case became a homicide investigation last month when Colson’s remains were located in a dilapidated barn in Norwich. Autopsy results found he was shot in the head multiple times. He was last seen alive on Jan. 11.

In interviews, Richard Whitcomb, of Hartford, who has been identified in federal court documents as a suspect in Colson’s disappearance, told police that he never saw Colson on Jan. 11, according to the affidavits. He also told police that he traveled to Manchester that day to buy cocaine.

However, cellphone data and a witness contradict Whitcomb’s account, according to the affidavits obtained from Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction:

— Data retrieved from Whitcomb’s cellphone show that on Jan. 11 he was near where authorities ultimately found Colson’s remains, as well as where police found a trailer the two men were to have used to haul scrap metal.

— While Whitcomb, 38, told police he traveled to Manchester on Jan. 11, cellphone data show he stayed in the Upper Valley throughout the day.

— The person Whitcomb claims accompanied him to Manchester, Mark Ruppel, of Lebanon, denies making the trip and told police that Whitcomb asked him to lie about their whereabouts that day.

Police filed the 10 affidavits in January in order to secure warrants to search Whitcomb’s property, including his cellphones, his home and his truck. Police subsequently seized a number of cellphones and a handgun from Whitcomb’s home on Connecticut River Road.

The warrants say that searching Whitcomb’s property was necessary because police had “probable cause to believe that such property or objects(s) will be found and will constitute” either possession or sale of cocaine, unlawful restraint or kidnapping, carrying a dangerous weapon while committing a felony, or aggravated assault, manslaughter or homicide.

While Whitcomb has been named in federal court papers as a suspect in Colson’s disappearance, he has not been arrested or charged in connection with the case. Whitcomb, however, has pleaded not guilty to federal firearms charges, including allegations that he used a handgun as collateral in a cocaine deal with Colson.

In addition to the cellphone location data and witness interviews, the affidavits provide additional details uncovered in the investigation by police.

A forensic analysis of one of his cellphones shows Whitcomb made suspicious Google searches in the days after Colson went missing, including about how long gunshot residue remains after a weapon is fired and whether deleted text messages can be retrieved from a cellphone, the affidavits state.

The affidavits also include text message exchanges between Whitcomb and his wife, Sara, in which she questioned her husband about Colson’s whereabouts four days after he went missing.

“Tell me the truth rich. It’s all gonna come out,” Sara Whitcomb texted on Jan. 15.

“It’s all crap. I am telling you the truth,” Whitcomb replied.

After the couple went back and forth about Whitcomb’s whereabouts on the day in question, Sara Whitcomb told her husband that his version of events was “not adding up.”

“I wanna know what happened to Austin. You are the last person to talk to him,” Sara Whitcomb texted.

He replied: “No, his girlfriend was the last. I saw him Monday.”

“You texted him Thursday,” Sara Whitcomb replied. “And then he vanished.”

After Colson went missing, relatives told police they believed he had planned to meet up with Whitcomb to haul scrap metal on the day he disappeared.

According to the affidavits, Whitcomb told police that he received a text from Colson around 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 11 in which Colson said he couldn’t sleep. Whitcomb told police that Colson never got back into contact with him, and that the two never met up to collect scrap metal as they had planned, according to the affidavits.

One man interviewed by police, Joshua Demer, said Whitcomb met Colson on either Jan. 9 or Jan. 10 at the South Royalton residence he shared with his girlfriend Katie Grizzaffi.

Another man, Daniel Caron, told the Valley News they were all together on Jan. 10, though the police affidavit incorrectly put the meeting on Jan. 11, the day Colson was last seen.

Caron told police Whitcomb stopped by to pick up a gun Whitcomb had given Colson, according to the affidavits.

In interviews with police, Whitcomb acknowledged that he purchased heroin and cocaine from Colson, had acted as a “middle man” for several drug transactions and that he would receive compensation from Colson for facilitating drug transactions. He also told police that he “fronted” a handgun as collateral, the affidavits said.

Ruppel told police during an interview that Whitcomb called him on Jan. 17 and was “upset, on the verge of crying and begging him to tell the police that he had either seen Whitcomb or was hanging out with him in Manchester (on Jan. 11),” according to the affidavits.

“This is in direct contradiction with Whitcomb’s statement given to police on Jan. 16, when he said he was with Ruppel in Manchester in the later afternoon/evening of Jan. 11,” according to the affidavits, which were written by Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. Richard Holden.

The cellphone pings, all of which are approximate, place Whitcomb in Enfield around 8 a.m. on Jan. 11, followed by his home on Connecticut River Road between 8:45 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., and Colson’s father’s house between 10:40 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Dana Colson, Colson’s father, told police that Whitcomb and his son had plans to borrow his trailer to collect scrap that day.

Around 11:45 a.m., Whitcomb’s cellphone pinged near Whaleback Ski Area, and then was placed in White River Junction from 12:10 p.m. to 12:40 p.m.

Around 3:35 p.m., his phone pinged in the Beaver Meadow Road area in Sharon, near where the scrap metal trailer was found abandoned, and six minutes later, a cell tower pinged the phone near South Sharon, an affidavit states.

The trailer was found on Downer Road the week after Colson went missing. Downer Road sits about 8 miles north of the Beaver Meadow Road barn where Colson’s remains were located on May 23.

Grizzaffi, Colson’s girlfriend, told police that the trailer was found in a location where she, Colson and Whitcomb had gone hunting, the affidavits state.

Later on the afternoon of Jan. 11, Whitcomb’s phone registered back in Enfield for a short period of time, and then from 5:45 p.m. to midnight, his phone showed he was at or near his Hartford residence.

In interviews, police asked Whitcomb why he had changed his cellphone number just days after Colson’s disappearance, and he said he got a new phone and number because his wife was angry after she learned about the trip to Manchester to buy cocaine.

Meanwhile, in a separate interview, Sara Whitcomb said nothing about an argument and told police her husband had changed his number — but not gotten a new phone — at their therapist’s suggestion because using the previous number made it too easy to fall back into the drug trade, according to the affidavit.

Police say their investigation showed that Colson was involved in selling drugs in the area and that Whitcomb may have owed Colson money, something Whitcomb denied, according to the affidavits.

The investigation also showed that Colson may have had a dispute with other drug dealers over clients or territory.

Police found a small indoor marijuana growing operation inside Colson’s residence, as well as “sizable quantities of cash.”

The investigation showed Colson’s phone was last powered off around 11:15 a.m. on Jan. 11, the affidavits state.

Messages left for Richard and Sara Whitcomb weren’t returned. A message left for Whitcomb’s attorney in his federal case, Bradley Stetler, also wasn’t returned.

Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill said Colson’s death remains under investigation.

“As such, unfortunately, I don’t have much to add at this point,” he said.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603- 727-3248.

Correction

Joshua Demer told Vermont State Police he saw Hartford resident Richard   W hitcomb with Austin Colson on Jan. 9 or 10, the day before Colson went missing, according to a police affidavit. Daniel Caron says he told police he saw them together, along with Demer, at the South Royalton home Colson shared with his girlfriend on Jan. 10, although the affidavit puts it on the 11th. Vermont State Police have acknowledged that the affidavit listed an incorrect date, and that Caron told investigators he saw them together on Jan. 10. In addition, while Caron said he saw Colson return a handgun to Whitcomb, it was Whitcomb himself who told police he had temporarily given Colson a handgun as collateral for a friend's drug deal, according to the affidavit. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said both Demer and Caron placed Whitcomb with Colson on the day he disappeared; incorrectly reported that Caron told police it was linked to a drug deal; and was unclear that Whitcomb had provided the gun to Colson..